Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein, political scientists and (I hope they wouldn’t object to the characterization) quintessential center-loving establishment types, take full aim at the Republican Party in a column today at the Washington Post.

It’s an excellent piece, and I agree with almost all of it. My only caveat would be about the language they use to characterize the GOP: that it’s moved “sharply to the right,” that they’ve “gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post,” that it’s about the “bedrock right.” I don’t believe that the program they’re writing about, and the examples they give, have anything to do with conservative vs. liberal, conservative vs. moderate, or extreme conservative vs. conservative. And for the most part I’m not really talking about the question of what’s “really” conservative — you know, the argument that you’ll hear from Andrew Sullivan or Conor Friedersdorf or Noah Millman or Dan Larison that the positions on public policy supported by mainstream Republicans isn’t really conservative. They have a point, but that’s not really the key here.

The key is what all of Mann and Ornstein’s examples are about, which is radicalism and irresponsible behavior, not ideological extremism. The most liberal, or most conservative, Member of Congress can find ways to compromise with the other side; there’s nothing inherent in conservativism, or even in ideological extremism, that precludes compromise, comity, respect for institutional norms, and other things that Gingrich/DeLay Republicans — and that’s what we have today — are lacking.

And that gets back to the question of what is “really” conservative, because the problem is that when your leadership is so radical, and radically dishonest as well (consider, just as one example, the “fight” against the UN swooping in and taking away everyone’s guns, or the claim that Democrats are trying to do that), it’s very difficult for a party to really develop either viable policy or principled policy. I think the best way to see this is in the challenges to folks such as Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar, or Orrin Hatch — or in the inability of conservative opinion leaders to laugh off Sarah Palin, or Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann. It’s not that Cain, for example, was more conservative than Mitt Romney; Cain was barely able to talk about public policy at all. It’s all notional junk about “establishment.”

The Republican Party is severely dysfunctional, not severely conservative. And it’s going to take honest, sane, conservatives to restore it to health. How that can happen, alas, I have no idea at all.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.